01/25/13

Another day on the job in Paradise… chapter one


Mayor QuimbyMayor Ralph “Bosco” Hearne, whistling softly “Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City” under his breath, gazed at the wood-and-polished-brass, 19th-century front doors of town hall and nodded slightly in approval. He stopped whistling, paused, and breathed out a gentle sigh of satisfaction. The gleam of the brass was unobstructed; his view extended through the big glass window clear into the atrium and to the back with its veined marble wall without a single thing to distract it. A few short minutes and the doors would open; town hall would be bustling with staff; residents would come and go, doing their municipal business, checking tax records, buying dog tags. Yet at almost 8:30, with the sun already peering onto the main street, there was no one waiting to be let in; no one tapping impatiently at the glass trying to attract staff’s attention; no one pacing nervously in front of the doors and muttering darkly at the inability of staff to tell time.

Any morning that began with an empty entranceway promised to be a good day for Mayor Hearne, because any day that began without an early morning encounter with Caroline Rune was a morning to enjoy. Meeting her always involved a tirade led into a slew of accusations about how he and council were trying to destroy not only the town, but the region and even democracy in general. Not seeing her waiting for him gave him hope he would not develop one of those nail-in-the-temple headaches before noon. He could keep the whiskey locked up in his desk drawer until at least mid-afternoon. It could, just maybe, be a normal day in town hall, maybe even in all of Neuville.

He looked up and down the street, a little nervously, expecting any moment to see a harridan in full flight coming towards him, but the sidewalk was empty, except for old Nick Charnley slowly sweeping in front of his bookstore; his daily exercise, after which he would retreat behind a desk and remain there until closing, nose deep in a book.  And down further a young couple were emerging from the doughnut shop with hands full of coffee and sugary delights, laughing. A few pigeons pecked at the curb, undisturbed by the noise and bustle of pedestrians that would soon develop. Another day in paradise. Mayor Hearne smiled and stepped towards the door, fumbling a bit for his keys.

Before he could retrieve them, inside, a dark figure coalesced from the shadows and waved in his direction. He saw only the silhouette, but he knew who it was. Janet Sparling, the mayor’s executive assistant. She opened the door, smiled, and took his briefcase from him, then glanced hurriedly up and down the street before closing the door with a satisfying snick of the lock.

Hearne and his assistant exchanged sly smiles at the empty streetscape. No one said the name; no one wanted to invoke the demons of bad luck and thus draw down on them the fury of Caroline.There was, after all, a hurricane once named Caroline and it caused only a fraction of the havoc the local one had wreaked upon the town staff.

“Morning, Janet,” Hearne said, and headed to his corner office with his assistant tailing behind. His Blackberry buzzed at his waist, but he ignored it. “Anything up today?”

“Nothing much this morning. A meeting with Tony from the developers’ association at 10, something about east end servicing. Andy wants to speak to you about the waste water plant and I’ve got him in at 10:45. I think he wants money for an upgrade. I told him he should wait until for budget before bringing it up, but he insisted. Kelly is coming at 11:30 to discuss a library issue, something about personnel, probably wants more front desk staff because Judy is retiring this year. And then you have a ribbon cutting at noon for the new hair salon on Barricade Street. But nothing booked until 10, so I pulled out the county report for you to go over. They want it reviewed by council before the end of the month.”

Janet’s idea of “nothing much” was usually a day where meetings were scheduled to allow bathroom breaks between them, but little else. For her a busy day meant overlapping appointments, a slate of crucial decisions that had to be made within minutes, and photo-op commitments until at least 8 p.m. All without the breaks. Lunch, if he was lucky enough to grab it, would be a toasted bagel, usually received cold, then shovelled into his mouth between meetings or in his car, rinsed down by enough coffee to keep half the town jittery and awake for a week. Janet lived to fill his schedule. For her an hour without a scheduled event was a personal failure to fulfill her job requirements.

“But this afternoon is a bit busy,” she continued, following him into the office and putting his briefcase on his desk as the mayor looked at the full inbox with a frown. The county report was bulging over the sides. “You’ve got the police services board about the upcoming police contract talks at one, at 1:45 the mall owners are coming in. They want to you to lower their taxes so they can attract more businesses. At 2:30 the downtown merchants have a petition about pigeon control they want to present at the next council meeting. And the animal shelter wants the town to pay for more dog runs. They’ll be here at 2:45. Then at three, you have to present a certificate for 25 years in business to the Smalleys at their clothing store. Not the secondhand one on Wine Street, the one on Carson. And then the paper wants Sean to interview you about the condition of the bridge over the Beau River. I have that scheduled for 3:30. But I’ll bet he wants to sneak in some questions about your brother’s trip to Florida last winter. Betty overheard him saying something at the coffee shop last week and she thinks he plans to phone the condo office to find out who paid for it. After that the planning department wants…”

“Don’t you ever stop to take a breath?” Hearne interrupted, and then laughed when she looked hurt. “Sorry. I sometimes wonder what a day without a crisis, a crucial meeting that couldn’t be postponed, or a ribbon cutting would be like. Have I got time to call the flower shop and order something for my anniversary this week?”

“Already done. A nice arrangement. I asked them for something tropical, maybe some ginger blossoms and a bird of paradise or two. Tasteful but not too expensive. I used your credit card. The personal one, of course, not the town’s. Don’t want to upset you-know-who. I’ve also booked you and the missus at the steak house for dinner at seven, but you’ll have to leave by 8:30 because the Presbyterian church has a service to pray for peace in Somalia and they expect you to be there. So that means just one glass of wine and no liqueur afterwards.”

“You always amaze me, Janet. You’re so efficient that one day the dictionary will have your picture instead of a definition of the word. Thanks. Let me get started on this report before the masses start to line up. Are there any staff comments to go along with it, or am I on my own?”

“The rec department report is attached, and planning sent an e-mail…”

She never got to finish. The words got caught in her throat by a screeching, “A ha!” from the hallway that made the mayor’s teeth hurt and dogs within a quarter mile perk up their ears ready to bark. Caroline Rune had arrived, unseen and late, but certainly not unheard. “There you are! Mayor Hearne, I know what you and council are planning for the old Brown property and if you go ahead, I promise you there will be hellfury and damnation.”

“Morning, Caroline,” said Hearne, trying not to roll his eyes and shake his head. Janet put a hand to her mouth, and debated within herself whether to step between them or flee to her own office. The choice was between ignoble flight and putting her hands, at least metaphorically, into a raging blender. She chose flight, and, nodding apologetically at Hearne, scuttled past the woman in the doorway to the safety of the hallway beyond.

“Won’t you have a seat?” Hearne asked, resignedly, feeling the edge of that headache creeping up and pressing on his temples. He pointed at a chair across from his desk, then rubbed his temples with small circular motions. “Perhaps you could tell me what you think we’ve done so I can set the record straight and get on with my day’s work.”

“I don’t think,” the woman replied as she stepped towards the chair, then sat down heavily. “I know.”

Hearne gave her a tired smile, refusing himself the opportunity to make a wisecrack at her statement. Once upon a time he had had a crush on Caroline Rune, back when she was Caroline Crumby. Back in the school days, those hormone-filled teen years, so long ago. When he still played football, and he didn’t pack the oversize midriff he sported these days. Back then Caroline, to his testosterone-laced jock brain, was a hottie. Back then Caroline didn’t dabble in crystals, astrology, UFOs, or politics. Back then Caroline didn’t build conspiracy theories out of every council motion or bylaw.

She was still a slim, attractive woman, with shoulder-length brown hair and a shapely figure for her age. As long as you didn’t look at her eyes, didn’t look into the slightly wild and whirling pupils, you might still be attracted to her. Until, of course, she opened her mouth. Once that happened, you entered a world that belonged in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. Or the X-Files. Something not quite connected with reality. A fantasy of lies, conspiracies and accusations in which Mayor Hearne played a leading role.

For Caroline, everything was a conspiracy. From changing the parking rates to zoning amendments, she saw the dark hand of evil forces at work, saw the local branch of the Illuminati pulling the strings from the shadows. In an age of vampire pop, Hearne was her Nosferatu.

As he lowered himself into his leather chair, Caroline was busy digging into her purse. She pulled out a sheaf of papers and waved them at the mayor, the rustle of the sheets loud in the room.

“I mean to file these today. I will find out what you’re doing. And once I do, I will tell everyone about your plans. I will tell the press. I will post it on Facebook. I don’t care what it costs. People have to know.”

Freedom of Information requests. A dozen, maybe more from the look of it. She filed at least that many almost every week, so many that the clerk’s office kept a supply of them with her name and address pre-printed, just for Caroline’s unceasing demands. But this week she looked like she would outdo herself in filing. She tucked the papers back into her bag and settled back with a satisfied smile, waiting for the mayor to respond.

“Okay, Caroline, I give up,” he said. “What have we done now? Last I recall, we were entertaining a request to re-zone the property so a developer could build a strip mall out on the east end of town. It’s all been done in public meetings. The Brown family sold the land after the old house fell down, and the new owner wants to change it from residential to commercial zoning. What’s wrong with that? Residents in the east end want something nearby so they didn’t have to drive into town just to get a bag of milk.”

“You can’t pawn me off with some lame excuse, Ralph Hearne. I know what’s going on. You and that cabal you call a council have been offered a lot of money to turn the east end into a resort and casino development. Once you get this foothold, you plan to expropriate all the homes along the waterfront and sell the land to developers. Of course you’ll get a kickback. Then you will take your wages of sin and buy properties in Bermuda or Barbados so you can live in luxury while the rest of us have to deal while the effects of crime, social degradation and gambling addiction decimate our community.”

“Come on, Caroline. That’s a bit of a stretch, even for you. We’ve got an application for a convenience store, an oil change shop, and a fishing tackle place. That’s a pretty long way from a casino and resort. You couldn’t fit a motel on that property, let alone a resort.”

“It’s just a smokescreen,” she replied. “I know you’ve been meeting with people from the government about building a secret casino. Lobbyists, too. There are rumours of big commissions being paid. Hush money to local real estate agents. I know what you’re planning. You’re going to make your brother manager, too. Keep the money in the family.”

“Caroline,” Hearne said, trying to smile but feeling it rise to a grimace. “Peter isn’t going to be manager of anything. He already has a job and he’s looking at retirement soon, not changing careers. No one’s proposing a casino or resort for the east end. I wish they would because we could use the taxes and jobs. But this is just a small strip mall, nothing more sinister than that.”

Nothing more? It’s a foot in the door for organized crime. The next thing you’ll be privatizing the road and turning the whole area into a gated community for crime lords and millionaires. Private facilities. Private clinics. I know what happens when they get a foothold. You want to make us into Las Vegas north. I will fight you to the bitter end, Ralph. I will file my Freedom of Information requests today so I can make it public and warn people about you.”

“It’s your money,” Hearne said, resignedly. “But you might want to save it for at least a week. We haven’t even approved the zoning change. Until then, there’s nothing much we can give you.”

“Wait?” Caroline snorted. “So you can direct staff to hide the records and falsify the reports like you always do? Not on your life, Ralph Hearne. You can fool others, but not me. I can file now and later. That way you won’t be able to hide anything.”

“I’m not trying to fool you, Caroline. I’m just trying to save you some money. But it’s yours and you can spend it anyway you wish. Did you get anything from the last requests you filed, the ones about the ice rink?”

Caroline glared at the mayor, then glowered at the doorway where Janet was seen fleetingly peering into the office. “You know I didn’t. You’ve got everything too well hidden.”

“I could have told you we weren’t planning to buy a fleet of helicopters for council’s personal use. It’s not something we could hide in the budget. Besides, where would we put  a dozen choppers?”

“Don’t patronize me, Ralph. I still believe you plan to put them in that tent you’re building over the ice rink. Why else would you want to cover it?”

“It’s not a tent, Caroline. It’s a high-tech architectural membrane structure. A tent is something you go camping in. And we wanted to cover it so kids could skate year-round.”

She sniffed. “Call it what you like. Might as well call it a bubble. We know it’s just another boondoggle. You’re building a hanger for your helicopters and your jets. No child in this town will ever skate inside it.”

Jets? Where’s the runway? Don’t we need a runway for jets?”

“Oh, you’ll build one, I know you. You’ve got plans to bulldoze all those houses on Lane Street so you can fly to your mansion in the Caribbean. You think we don’t know about this? That’s why you prevented Doctor Basildon from opening his clinic there. You need the space for your runway.”

“Caroline, Caroline,” Hearne muttered. “Where do you get these ideas? Basildon started building his clinic without permits, in an area zoned residential. We had to stop him from breaking the law. It was a minor delay for his own sake. We don’t want to have to charge him. We went out of our way to make it easy for him to get his paperwork in order and finish the construction.”

“You have not. You forced him to pay usurious charges for the privilege of creating jobs and paying taxes. You want to bankrupt him before he even opens his doors.”

“No, we don’t. He has to pay the same development charges and permit fees every other developer has to pay for a commercial property as per our bylaws and the county’s rules. They’re not secret. If he had applied for a permit before he started building, he would have known about them.”

“You could have given him an exemption as a medical clinic. It’s a necessary service. After all, you said we need the jobs, and the community desperately needs his medical services.”

“No we couldn’t. The province doesn’t allow us to bonus any private business. Even if we could, half of the charges are the county’s and we have no control over them. Besides, he’s a chiropractor and we already have more of them than we have doughnut shops in this town. A few extra weeks won’t make a lot of difference to our general well-being.”

“You are such an ignorant man, Ralph Hearne,” she snuffed. “It’s a wonder you ever got elected by anyone who can read. But we’ll change that, next election. For your information, Dr. Basildon is bringing the latest in proven alternative health services here. We will be the centre of a health care revolution in this province. The healing energy radiating from his site will cure everyone within miles, even if they’re not his patients. Think of the money everyone will save from not having to go to the doctor or hospital once he opens. We’ll be able to close the hospital in a few months. Of course that means you won’t be able to get your under-the-counter payback from the Ministry of Health any more.”

“Caroline, the ministry doesn’t give me a dime. You already looked into that, what, two months, three months ago? Basildon is planning to put in a hot tub with big magnets and crystals around it. The only thing that will change is the direction compasses point and a few lighter wallets. I don’t think the hospital will be able to close very soon.”

“Not like you’ll ever know. You’ll be flying to Antigua or Tortuga or some island paradise with the money you get from developers and crime lords long before he ever opens.”

“If I do, I’ll be sure to send you a postcard. Now is there anything else you need from me? I have several meetings today and need to read this…” He gestured at the county report in his inbox. “…sometime very soon. I’d like to get it started before I’m too old to lift it.”

“Your phone records. I want to see your phone records.”

“We’ve gone over this before, Caroline. You filed that request already and got them.”

“But the numbers were blanked out. You’re hiding them.”

“Like the clerk told you, the numbers are private and we need the permission of the caller to show them. We have to respect their privacy.”

“You think you can hide those calls you make to Antigua and your bank in the Bahamas? We’ll find the truth. You won’t get away with it forever. I’ll keep filing requests until the truth comes out.” At this she pulled the sheaf of papers out of her purse and brandished them at the mayor again.

Hearne sighed. “You do that. That’s the wonderful thing about living in a democracy. No one can stop you from spending your money on lost causes.”

But Caroline wasn’t listening. She was already on her feet and halfway out the door by the time he finished speaking. She headed in the direction of the clerk’s office. A few seconds later, Janet stuck her head in the doorway, looking sheepish. “Can I get you a coffee? Maybe a cookie or a doughnut?”

“Thanks, I could use the coffee. But I better pass on the dessert.” He patted his bulging midriff. “If it’s not too late, call the clerk’s office and warn them Caroline is on her way.”

“Already done. They have last week’s requests for her ready to go.”

“The ones about why we chose the heritage paint colours for downtown?”

“That and the correspondence on the shape of the new wayfinding signs.”

“That’ll be rivetting reading. I’m always tempted to drop in some hints about being abducted by aliens into my emails to staff and council. Give Caroline and her circle something to gnaw on for a while, the proof they’re always looking for. Council is controlled by aliens. The truth is out there, so they say.”

“Didn’t she already file for that when she got your automobile mileage reports? Something about travelling to Nevada?”

“Yeah, looking for unexplained trips to Area 51. I can’t keep track of all my secret meetings with the aliens and crime lords. I’m glad you manage my schedule for me. I might end up in Bogota when I’m supposed to be in a spaceship.”

Janet smiled, then vanished, heading briskly towards the front door and the coffee shop a few doors away. Ralph watched her go, briefly thought about going home and getting back into bed, then picked up the heavy county report and started reading.

…to be continued…

12/20/12

A Council Christmas Carol – part 1


STAVE ONE.

Winter driving

It was one of those long winter days. I was back in town late, that Thursday, well after dark, driving down the main street watching the heavy snow cover the road and sidewalks. I’d been out of town almost the whole day, entombed in various meetings. Too much time spent driving to and fro, too much coffee, junk food, and not enough exercise. I was tired, hungry, cranky and not at all in the holiday season spirit. All I wanted to do was get home and get into bed.

But first I had to pick up the agenda from town hall. The weather over the next few days was going to be rough and I didn’t want to venture out again until the storm cleared up. I pulled into a parking space nearby and got out. Stumbling over the snowbank, I walked through ankle-deep snow to the entrance. Humbug to the snow, humbug to the cold, humbug to the decorations that graced the downtown. I flashed my key card and opened the locked door.

Damn, it was dark inside. I opened the doorway to the stairwell and flicked the switch. Nothing. Power must have gone out. Well, there were still streetlights on, so it wasn’t pitch black. Except in the stairwell, of course. Nothing I could do about it. I knew the lay of the building well enough that I could feel my way upstairs and to the council room with no problem, if I was careful and slow. I stumbled a bit, but soon reached the second floor and was pawing through the piles of paper in my mail box.

The agenda was there, and it felt to be about 200 pages thick. I groaned. That defined what I’d be doing all weekend: reading and making my notes for Monday’s council meeting. That and shovelling my driveway.

In the feeble light from the street, I could barely make out a the dense type on the front page of the agenda. It promised to be a long meeting. They’d been getting that way, of late. The thick brown envelope under the agenda told me a lengthy in-camera meeting would follow. I sighed and gathered up the paperwork.

I was just about to leave and work my way back downstairs when I heard an odd sound. Metal on metal, a dull but substantial clinking, followed by a dragging sound. What the hell? There wasn’t supposed to be anyone in the building at this time of night, aside from the odd councillor coming to check his mail box. Intruder? I patted my pocket and realized I had left my Blackberry in the car. Couldn’t even call the police. I quietly slipped into the hall, listening to hear the sound again.

Clank, clank. There it was, coming, it seemed, from the council chamber. Something being dragged across the carpet. That puzzled me. There’s nothing valuable in there, not even a mayor’s gavel. Maybe a bottle of well-past-its-best-before-date hot sauce in my drawer, hardly worth breaking and entering for. We all take our computers home – what’s there to steal? I decided to confront whoever it was.

Clank, sssscrape…. clank…. sssscrape… clank….

Now I’m not a superstitious guy, but the hairs on the back of my neck stood up at that sound. It was just too weird. An odd, eerie sound that brought goosebumps.Like someone was dragging heavy chains across the chamber. Or maybe the special effects sounds from a George Romero movie. And then I heard the moan, a low, rasping sound, forced through the tortured lungs of something not quite human. My thoughts turned rapidly from fight to flight.

The Ghost of VOTEBut it was too late. To my shock and horror a luminous shape oozed into the hallway, right through the closed door, barely two meters from where I stood. I dropped my jaw and my bundles of papers as I stood, transfixed. A ghost! I had actually encountered a ghost! Man, did I have a lot of apologizing to do to those psychics I had humiliated in so many blog posts.

The figure coalesced slowly into a ragged spectre of a man, manacled hand and foot and dragging what seemed to be metres of heavy chain. But since I could see through him, I suspected those chains weren’t heavy in my world, just in his spiritual plane.

He was short. Not very imposing for a denizen of the spirit world, and he was wearing a white turtle-neck sweater under a faded blue sports jacket that sported a prominent lapel button with the words, “Harper: 2008″ written on it.

Coun…sssssilorrrrrrrrrrrrr…. Chadwickkkkk…..,” the apparition hissed as he pointed a scrawny hand at my chest.

“Wh… wh… wh….” I stammered, struggling to remember those meditation exercises about deep breathing. Wasn’t working very well. Must have missed a lesson. I gulped some air and tried to calm down under the chilling influence of his death-cold eyes. “What do you want from me?”

Muchhhhhhhhhhh!” It was a vaguely familiar voice, no doubt about it. Even the face was almost, but not quite recognizable. Was this the spirit of someone I knew? Or was I imagining the likeness to someone living? It was hard to tell, with all that glow-in-the-dark makeup.

“Who are you?” I asked.

Assssk me who I wassss…ssss….sss.”

“What?”

Assssk me who I wassss!

“Uh, look, I’m sorry, but it’s hard to understand you. I think it’s the reverb in your voice. Can you tone it down a bit? Otherwise we’ll be here all night, you saying something, me saying what, you repeating yourself.”

“Ask me who I was. Is that better?”

“Yeah, thanks. You’re a bit odd, for a shade, you know. I expected someone… taller. Okay, I’ll bite. Who were you?” I raised my voice, feeling a little more confidence.

“In life, I was your conscience, Councillor Chadwick. These days I am the ghossssst of… councilssss passsst….” the spirit said.

“There’s that reverb thing again. I’m losing you.”

“Sorry. It’s part of the package. Can you hear me now?”

“Perfectly. Look, I don’t think my conscience has died.I clearly recall using it recently in a vote over a casino.”

“Gaming facility,” the spirit corrected. “Slot barn. Hardly a casino.”

“Whatever. Look, I’m pretty sure I still have mine and even if it’s buried deep in this black heart of a politician, It wouldn’t leave me without a significant bribe, and to date I haven’t managed to get as much as a cup of coffee from a developer. So who are you really?”

“I am the ghost of many who kept our councils on the straight and narrow. We held you accountable, we held your feet to the political fire. We made public your sins. We could have been your salvation, had you heeded us.”

“Ah, a ratepayer’s group. You mean VOTE, don’t you? Humbug. Weren’t you simply a special interest group created to get a slate of politicians elected to council one year?”

“That, too,” the spirit admitted with a small shrug, then raised a crooked finger towards the ceiling. “But we served a loftier purpose as well. Good governansssssssss… was our true mandate”

“Let’s agree to disagree on that point. Okay, so spirits walk the earth. Why come to me?”

“It is required of every politician,” the Ghost returned, waving his chained arms over his head and rattling them, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to due process!”

“I think you’ve got the wrong politician. I’m on municipal council. I don’t have the expense account to travel far and wide. Ottawa is as far as I’ve ever gone. I think you want our Member of Parliament. MPs get to go to China and India. They buy fighter jets.  We buy buses. Let me give you her address.” I patted my pocket for my missing Blackberry.

Again the spectre raised a cry; it shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.

“Okay, okay. Sorry to disappoint you,” I said, still trembling a bit at that soul-searing sound. “Listen, what’s with the chains?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?

“Well, it kind of looks like the mayor’s chain of office, if you bought it in the dollar store that is. But every link has the letters O, A and T on  it. Some sort of cereal?”

Every politician has to carry a chain like this as heavy and as long as they have served their own self-interest. It is a ponderous chain!

“They stand for Openness, Accountability and Transparency” replied the Ghost. “Every politician has to carry a chain like this as heavy and as long as they have served their own self-interest. It is a ponderous chain!”

“Ponderous. I like that word. reminds me of a public planning meeting. So you were you a politician in your past life. From a former council, perhaps? Did you ever donate $100 to cover a ratepayer’s group’s legal bills when they were suing the town? Or maybe you were a real estate agent? They’re always caught up in conflict of interest and haunting the halls while council debates a land sale. ”

“I have at sat the table,” the Ghost replied. “I have served the public interest, but served my own agendas as well. And for that, I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. Weary journeys lie before me!”

I put my hands in my pants pockets as I pondered what the ghost had said. “You must have been very clumsy about it,” I observed,” Sounds like you got caught with your hands in the cookie jar. Or maybe the voters realized who you were and chucked you out of office. Pursing personal agendas too aggressively will do that.”

At that, the spirit cried in anguish and rattled his chains so loudly it made me step back. “You’re not making me feel good about this meeting, spirit. Haven’t you got anything positive to say?”

“I have none,” the Ghost replied, shaking his head. “I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere.”

“Ex-politicians have that effect on people,” I answered. The spirit nodded glumly.

“Well, you certainly took your time about it. Haunting town hall, I mean,” I observed, in a business-like manner, though with humility and deference, in case the spirit had something more than just noisy lamentations for me.

“Took me time!” the Ghost repeated with an edge to his voice.

“Well face, it. VOTE imploded four or five years ago,” I responded. “Pretty much everyone left; just a half-dozen of diehards stuck it out to the bitter end. I don’t think anyone around here even remembers them by name these days. A few of us recall the police investigation, of course. Gets a chuckle when you’re swapping stories at the AMO conference.”

“The whole time since,” said the Ghost. “I have had no rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse.”

“I get that remorse thing if you’re talking about last term,” I said. “But it must have been pretty quiet this term. We’re behaving well at council.”

“You wish,” replied the Ghost. “Why do you think I’m here in the dead of winter? I could be haunting someone in Florida, you know.”

“Come on,” I said. “You can’t have that many issues to raise with us. We’ve been sticking pretty close to the procedural bylaw. Hardly an in-camera meeting worth mentioning. Oath of office is still shiny and nary a spot of tarnish on it. Not like last term. Not a single incident of spying on council emails has raised its head.”

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the bylaw officers, should they have been present, would have been justified in indicting it for a nuisance.

Oh! Political fool, bound, and double-ironed! You not know the ages of incessant labour by immoral creatures in whose footsteps you tread

“Oh! Political fool, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “You not know the ages of incessant labour by immoral creatures in whose footsteps you tread, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of your kind is developed. Not to know that any councillor working in your own little sphere will find your mortal life too short for your vast avarice. No space of regret can make amends for one life’s dedicated to self-interest!”

“You remind me of someone who set council’s gold standard for personal agendas.” I said. “Can you imagine putting political junk mail from your party of choice on the consent agenda? Gotta be a low, even for a politician. Immoral creatures that we are.”

“Personal agenda!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my agenda. The common welfare was my agenda; I lived only to educate the masses in the higher meaning of wholesome ideologies.”

“Uh, yeah. I read the party platform. It came in the mail. Went right into the blue bin. Sorry.”

The spirit held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”

“I will,” I said. “But get to the point! Don’t be so flowery!”

“How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell,” the spirit said with a slow sigh. “I have sat invisible beside you, beside all of council, during many and many a meeting.”

It was not an agreeable idea. I shivered, thinking of those dead eyes peering at my laptop screen while a meeting progressed. At least I wasn’t caught playing solitaire during a council meeting. “Even the in camera stuff?”

“That is no light part of my penance,” pursued the Ghost. “I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A slim chance.”

“Ever wonder how a slim chance and a fat chance mean the same thing?” I asked.

“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by three spirits.”

“Come on! What sort of chance is that? I need to get home and get dinner. Besides I don’t want to miss tonight’s episode of Downton Abby. Can’t it wait until next weekend?

“No way, José. This weekend it is. Time of the year for epiphanies, and all that.”

“I—I think I’d rather not,” I picked up the papers from the hall floor and tucked them under my arm. “There are eight others at the table, surely one of them isn’t planning anything tonight. What about the DM? He deserves a good haunting, don’t you think?”

“Without their visits,” continued the Ghost, ignoring my protests, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls one.”

“The bell tolls? Where do you get this script? Couldn’t I take ’em all at once, and get it over with?”

“Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate.”

“I have a digital clock. It doesn’t vibrate. Unless you mean my Blackberry. Look, that’s three late nights. I’m not a spring chicken any more. If I don’t get my full eight hours of shut-eye and I’m cranky for the rest of the day. These friends of yours won’t like me if I’m cranky.”

“Look to see me no more,” the Ghost answered. “For your own sake, remember what has passed between us!”

“Like I could forget a memorable evening like this.”

“You think the public will re-elect a smart-ass? Keep it up and I’ll write nasty things about you on my blog.”

When it had said these words, the spectre walked backward from me; and at every step it took, the door to the council chamber opened itself a little, so that when the spectre reached it, it was wide open.

It beckoned me to approach, which I did. When we were within two paces of each other, the Ghost held up its hand, warning me to come no nearer.

I stopped. Not so much in obedience, as in surprise and fear: for on the raising of that hand, I heard a babble of confused noises in the air; incoherent sounds of lamentation and regret; wailings inexpressibly sorrowful and self-accusatory. The spectre, after listening for a moment, joined in the mournful dirge; and floated into the dark Chamber.

I followed to the door, desperate in my curiosity, and looked in.

The air around the room was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like the Ghost who had spoken with me; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Some I personally recognized as former mayors and councillors; others I knew only by their photographs that line the hall near the mayor’s office. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good or worse, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

I knew that feeling. I had served on  council long enough to know what impotence meant, in a metaphorical sense anyway. Was this my fate? To forever haunt the council chambers quoting lines from the Municipal Act? I left the door, hurried down the stairs, and out of doors, not caring if I tripped in the dark. I really needed to get home. And get a stiff drink once I arrived.

To be continued…